Directed by: Travis Knight
Premise: An animated film. Set in ancient Japan, a young boy with a guitar must find his father’s magical sword and suit of armor in order to defeat an evil spirit.
What Works: Kubo and the Two Strings is another animated feature from Laika Entertainment who had previously produced Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls. Every Hollywood animation studio has its own unique creative stamp but Laika stands out from other animation houses. This is partly due to the fact that most of its films thus far have been stop motion animation rather than the computer graphics that currently dominate the genre. The movie is terrifically made with many gorgeous looking images that feature great depth and detail. The movie is also impressively kinetic. Because of the restrictions of the stop motion format, the camera work isn’t always as elaborate but there are some very interesting action set pieces in this film. The stop motion form tends to give the imagery an uncanny feel which is suitable for the spooky subject matter of Coraline and ParaNorman but the filmmakers are able to use it effectively in Kubo and the Two Strings. The stop motion look works for the fairy tale aspects of this story and the characters have a warmness and a soul to them that is as affecting as a live action performance. Kubo is joined on his journey by a talking monkey (voice of Charlize Theron) and a warrior whose body has taken on the form of a beetle (voice of Matthew McConaughey). This unusual collection of characters creates a unique team and the core cast of Kubo and the Two Strings is very strong. They are genuine characters and each of them is given a personality of his or her own. The films of Laika Entertainment are further distinguished by stories that deal with sophisticated ideas. The title character of Kubo and the Two Strings is a young boy who is missing an eye and who plays the guitar for money while caring for his mentally infirm mother. That’s a more mature starting point than most mainstream animated movies and from there Kubo is sent on a quest in which he must locate his father’s weaponry in order to fight off the Moon King (voice of Ralph Fiennes) who took one of Kubo’s eye’s and wants to take the other. The darkness that is at the core of Kubo and the Two Strings further distinguishes this film from other animated pictures in another way. In contemporary animated films there is a resistance to confronting children with challenging material; if Bambi were made today it is virtually inconceivable that the filmmakers would allow Bambi’s mother to die. Kubo and the Two Strings does not condescend to the audience and it has an appropriate level of trauma for a family movie.
What Doesn’t: Kubo and the Two Strings falters in the ending. The film establishes itself as about the search for the magical sword and armor that belonged to Kubo’s father and most of the movie is about Kubo and his companions searching for those pieces of weaponry. But the climax of Kubo and the Two Strings tosses this aside. The twist is in keeping with the reversal of audience expectations and storytelling formulas that Laika Entertainment did so well in ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls but it isn’t as successful here because the movie doesn’t work up to that reveal very well. The ending of Kubo and the Two Strings is further hurt because it is too conciliatory and the villain of the movie isn’t granted enough character development to make the ending dramatically satisfying. The Moon King is a bad guy doing bad things and there isn’t a hint that there is something redeemable about him that would lead to the film’s conclusion. The ending isn’t terrible but it doesn’t spring organically from the rest of the story.
Bottom Line: Kubo and the Two Strings is a smart and well-made animated feature. It is a little more interesting than the average animated family film and despite the weak ending there is an admirable attempt to do something distinctly different from the rest of Hollywood’s animated marketplace.
Episode: #609 (August 28, 2016)